Are Probiotics Bad For You?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Probiotics

Are Probiotics Worthless?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

are probiotics bad for youProbiotics (friendly gut bacteria) are all the rage. There is big money to be made, so the internet is ablaze with all the amazing things probiotics can do for you. Of course, most of those articles are posted by companies wanting to sell you their miracle mixture of probiotic bacteria.

In the last few weeks, you may have seen headlines proclaiming that probiotics are worthless. You just poop them out. Even worse, they may be upsetting the natural balance of bacteria in your gut. Are probiotics bad for you?  They may be.

As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Before I start sorting out fact from fiction, let me remind you of some important facts about gut bacteria that I covered in a recent article of “Health Tips From The Professor”:

  • The composition of bacteria in our gut is influenced by what we eat. For example, meat eaters have a completely different composition of gut bacteria than vegetarians.
  • Fiber from whole plant foods is a major food source for healthy gut bacteria.
  • Each plant-based food group and each food within that group has a unique blend of fibers. We should probably aim for a wide variety of whole plant foods in our diet.

Are Probiotics Worthless?

 

are probiotics bad for you studyLet’s start with the study (N. Zmora et al, Cell 174, 1388-1405, 2018 ) that generated the headlines proclaiming that probiotics were worthless.

The characteristics of the study with my comments are as follows:

  • The study had 15 subjects who were given either a commercially available probiotic supplement or a placebo containing cellulose. It was a very small study.
  • The probiotic supplement contained 25 billion colony forming units of 11 commonly used strains of bacteria. Its manufacturer claimed the bacteria survived stomach acid and colonized the intestine, but no references were given for published clinical studies backing up that claim. It is buyer beware in the supplement industry. I would not believe any claims about a probiotic supplement that were not backed up by published clinical studies.
  • The investigators measured bacterial colonization of the mucosal cells lining the intestine rather than the population of bacteria that ended up in the feces. This is the “gold standard” for measuring colonization of the intestine by probiotic bacteria. However, it requires a colonoscopy before the study started and a second colonoscopy 3 weeks later. As any of you who have had a colonoscopy can attest, this is a very invasive procedure. It probably accounts for the small size of the study. In fact, the study started with 28 subjects and 13 dropped out, one after suffering a serious adverse reaction to the first colonoscopy. My point is simply that I don’t expect to see a lot of this type of study.

are probiotics bad for you supplementsThe results of the study with my comments are as follows:

  • Overall, the particular probiotic supplement used in this study didn’t work very well. There was minimal colonization of the intestinal mucosal cells by the bacteria in the probiotic supplement. Some did better than others, but the net colonization was small. We don’t know whether the results would have been the same with other probiotic supplements, but this is the finding that generated all the headlines. However, it is the rest of the study that is interesting.
  • The probiotic supplement worked better for some subjects than for others. Some of the subjects in the study were “permissive.” The probiotic cells colonized their intestinal mucosal cells with high efficiency. Other subjects were “resistant.”  Probiotic bacteria had a great deal of difficulty colonizing their intestinal mucosal cells. This doesn’t surprise me. Most clinical studies report an average result. They don’t report individual variations. This is one of the first studies to report on individual variation of probiotic colonization. As such, it has important implications. It means that even though you may be taking a probiotic supplement that has been “clinically proven” to survive stomach acid and colonize the intestine, it may not work well for you. But, wait, the study gets even more interesting.
  • How well the probiotic supplement worked depended on the population of bacteria in the intestine to begin with. “Permissive” and “resistant” subjects had very different species of bacteria in their intestine at the beginning of the trial. There was a characteristic grouping of bacteria in “permissive” subjects and a different characteristic grouping of bacteria in “resistant” subjects. This is the part of the study that should have generated headlines. Let’s put this part of the study into perspective.

We each have around 38 trillion bacteria in our intestines. Let’s assume that all 25 billion bacteria in the probiotic supplement make it into the intestine intact. You have just dropped them into hostile territory where they are outnumbered 1,000 to 1. We know that some bacteria secret substances that support the growth of “like-minded” bacteria. That’s why certain species of bacteria tend to cluster together. We also know that bacteria secret toxins, so they can out-compete bacteria they don’t like. So, it is no wonder the survival of the probiotic bacteria depends on which species of bacteria are already populating the intestine when they arrive on the scene.

This study leaves a lot of unanswered questions:

  • What determined the original population of gut bacteria? Was it the genetics or health of the subject? Or, was it the food they were eating? We simply don’t know.
  • We were sending these probiotic bacteria into hostile territory. Were we giving them the food they needed to survive? Would the results have been different for the “resistant” subjects if they had been eating a different kind of fiber-rich foods, or taken a prebiotic supplement? Again, we just don’t know.

If we want to optimize the results of probiotic supplementation, these are the questions we should be asking.

 

Are Probiotics Bad For You?

are probiotics bad for you thumbs downNow, let’s turn to the study (J. Suez et al, Cell 174, 1406-1423, 2018) generating the headlines saying that probiotic supplements may be bad for you. This study was looking specifically at the use of probiotics following antibiotic use.

The study reported when probiotics are used following antibiotic use, they delay, rather than enhance, the recovery of intestinal bacteria back to the same number and type of bacteria that existed prior antibiotic use. That’s the finding that generated all the headlines. Let’s put that into perspective.

Both the headlines and interpretation of the data were inaccurate.

  • Probiotics actually had a relatively small effect on the ability to regain your “normal” population of intestinal bacteria. The headlines made it sound as if the delay was significant and that you never regained your “normal” population of intestinal bacteria. In fact by one measure, the population of intestinal bacteria was 70% normal by 5 days, 80% normal by 20 days, and 95% normal by 90 days.
  • Poop pills work better but will probably never be popular. When the investigators extracted intestinal bacteria from the subject’s poop and put them into pills prior to the study, the poop pills restored the “normal” population of intestinal bacteria much more quickly. However, I doubt that poop pills will become popular any time soon.
  • Your “normal” population of intestinal bacteria may not be the optimal population of intestinal bacteria. The headlines implied that the fact you never recovered your “normal” population of intestinal bacteria was a bad thing. That assertion assumes that all of us have the optimal population of intestinal bacteria to begin with, an assertion that almost any expert in the field would find absurd. The last time I checked, one of the major reasons for taking probiotic supplements was to change our population of intestinal bacteria for the better.

The study ignores the major reasons for taking a probiotic supplement after antibiotic use. Most people are not taking the probiotic supplement to restore their original population of intestinal bacteria. They are taking it to:

  • Prevent “bad guys” like yeast from filling the void caused by the antibiotics.
  • Improve digestion. Some strains of intestinal bacteria play an important role in digestion. Because antibiotics wipe out those bacteria, they often cause gas, diarrhea, and bloating. After antibiotic use, people are taking probiotic bacteria with digestive benefits to eliminate those digestive issues as quickly as possible.
  • Strengthen the immune system. People are generally taking antibiotics to fight some sort of infection. Some strains of intestinal bacteria play an important role in immunity. Because antibiotics wipe out those bacteria, they weaken the immune system. After antibiotic use, people are taking probiotics to strengthen the immune system as quickly as possible

In short, taking probiotic supplements that are proven to improve digestion and strengthen the immune system play an important role in minimizing the side effects of antibiotic use.

What Does This Mean For You?

are probiotics bad for you truthAt the beginning of this article I said; “The truth lies somewhere in between.” The first study is a perfect example.

  • It was valuable in that it challenged the assertion by some manufacturers that their probiotics survive stomach acid and work equally well for everyone. At the very least, it suggests that we should demand clinical proof that any probiotic supplement colonizes the intestine and provides a health benefit before we use it.
  • The most interesting finding from the first study is that probiotics work much better for some people than for others, and how well they work depends on the population of bacteria in our gut prior to taking the antibiotic. We have much more to learn about this individual variability, and how to control it.

Until we know more, my best advice is to eat a fiber-rich, primarily plant-based diet with as many different varieties of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes as possible. Providing a variety of fibers is important because at least some of them will likely support the growth of the bacteria in the probiotic supplement. Prebiotics may be of some help, but only if they have been shown to be effective for the particular strains of probiotic bacteria they are paired with.

The second study was much less enlightening. It reported that taking a probiotic after antibiotic use slowed the return to the original population of intestinal bacteria. My response to that is: “So what?”

  • The effect was minimal.
  • The purpose of probiotics is to improve on the population of intestinal bacteria, not to return to the same population of bacteria you had prior to antibiotic use.
  • Probiotics are taken after antibiotic use for reasons that have nothing to do with restoring the original population of intestinal bacteria.

 

The Bottom Line

 

Two recent studies have challenged the benefits of probiotic use.

The first study provided some valuable insights.

  • It reported that a particular probiotic supplement did a very poor job of colonizing the intestine. We have no idea whether that would apply to other probiotic supplements, but that was the result that generated all the headlines. At the very least, it suggests that we should demand clinical proof that any probiotic supplement colonizes the intestine and provides a health benefit before we use it.
  • However, the most interesting finding from the first study is that probiotics work much better for some people than for others, and how well they work depends on the population of bacteria in our gut prior to taking the antibiotic. We have much more to learn about this individual variability, and how to control it.

The second study was much less enlightening. It reported that taking a probiotic after antibiotic use slowed the return to the “normal” population of intestinal bacteria that were present before antibiotic use. My response to that is: “So what?”

  • The purpose of probiotics is to improve on the population of intestinal bacteria, not to return to the same population of intestinal bacteria you had prior to taking an antibiotic.
  • Probiotics are taken after antibiotic use for reasons that have nothing to do with restoring the original population of intestinal bacteria.

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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